Xi Jinping and the Laws of History

Two years ago I translated a major speech of Xi Jinping’s for the magazine Palladium. This translation was well received and has since been quoted both in Congressional testimonies and international editorial pages. I am generally pleased with this. So are the editors of Palladium. They approached me a few months ago wondering whether I would be willing to do a similar translation for them again. My problem: there was no speech of Xi’s (or other Standing Committee members) that I felt was of comparable importance and clarity that had not already been translated into English. Most of Xi’s thought makes it into English sooner or later. As of last week, there are now three volumes of Xi’s collected speeches published under the title The Governance of China; major political reports, Party constitutional amendments, plenum reports, and white papers are regularly published in English as they are released, and Xinhua translates excerpts of high level addresses every day. That mostly leaves things published in Seeking Truth (Ch: Qiushi) as the last bastion of authoritative, publicly available, yet untranslated, material to turn to—and most of that compliments or extends the stuff mentioned earlier, not supersedes it.

Translation is not the real bottleneck. Better than translating this material is contextualizing it. This means spotting the patterns and framing that connects various speeches and documents together and performing the intellectual archeology that makes sense of otherwise opaque Communist slogans on the other. Perhaps more important than translating any individual speech is showing how the collected speeches of Xi and company communicate a coherent vision. I told Palladium I would like to try my hand at this task, and pursue one theme across many documents and speeches.

Palladium published my piece today with the title “The Theory of History That Guides Xi Jinping.” I encourage you to read the full thing. But as folks are always pestering me about my “production function,” I want to write a few paragraphs on how I actually went about writing the thing.

Behind the piece is a question I have been pondering for a while: what to make of Xi and company’s constant insistence that China is committed to the “path of peaceful development” (和平发展之路). It is easy to look at the PRC’s soaring defense budget and conclude that this sort of talk is cheap, more propaganda than policy. I am uncomfortable with this conclusion. I have argued vigorously that the leaders of China believe that they are in a state of ideological competition with the United States, and have done so with the same sort of sources—indeed, some of the very same speeches—that affirm China’s commitment to peaceful development. I have argued before that these documents and the meetings that produce them are not exercises in rhetoric, but an attempt by Party leadership to train their cadres and coordinate the behavior of Party members. As as I say in the piece,

dismissing all of this as mere rhetoric is hard to square with the settings in which Xi appeals to “the pulse of times.” One does not call every ambassador to Beijing just to bore them with the latest propaganda hacks. Xi calls these meetings because he has an exact idea of how he wants his diplomats, bureaucrats, and generals to do their job. Addresses like these are less like stump speeches on the campaign trail than they are like instruction manuals. [1]

This talk of peaceful development needs to be taken seriously. So I set about combing through my two English volumes of Xi Jinping’s Governance of China looking for the phrase and sentiments similar to it. Occasionally I would consult the Chinese edition of the same books when I wanted to see how a certain phrase or idea was conveyed in the original. I then tried to think of major events in the years since Volume II was published where Xi would have had cause to touch on these themes, and eventually realized that the most important certainly would have been the 2018 Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs, which gathered together the politburo, the heads of the intelligence, united front, and foreign affairs bureaucracies, and all of China’s ambassadors under one roof to learn about “Xi Jinping Thought on Foreign Work.” Xi’s speech at that event has not yet been published, but I spent some time going through the Xinhua read-outs of it, as well as reading Yang Jiechi’s two lengthy precis of XJP Thought on Foreign Work for Qiushi.

I prioritized Yang’s pieces on this because he is arguable the second most authoritative voice on diplomatic policy after Xi himself, and he seems to have been given the responsibility for explaining it where Xi does not. Occasionally I was willing to look much further down the chain. If a specific set phrase seemed especially ambiguous (like “The modern world is undergoing great changes unseen in a century” 当今世界正处于百年未有之大变局), I would put the phrases in Google or Baidu and read through commentaries on the phrase that have been written for The People’s Daily, the Party School’s WeChat account, and so forth. (I link to all of the useful ones in the Palladium essay).

When reading these sources I first try to determine how similar the meaning of the words they use is to the commonly understood meaning of these words in English (or for that matter, in Chinese). This is not something that should be assumed. Often times a word (say, “democracy”) means something very different in Party speak than it does for us. To make things more difficult, it is rare for Xi Jinping or Yang Jiechi to precisely define the terms they use, or rigorously present any of Xi’s ideas. Terms like “path of peaceful development” have to be understood more as a composite of all the ideas and slogans associated with them.

One of the ideas most commonly presented alongside talk of “peaceful development” was this notion of the “trend of history.” I had already highlighted almost every instance of this “trend of history” stuff in my first read through Xi’s Governance of China. I did that because I am interested in what Marxism means to the modern Communist Party, and saw how that was also closely associated with the Party’s claimed ability to discern “scientific laws” behind the course of history. I am not the only person who has dwelt on Xi’s historical determinism—Andrew Batson often blogs about it, Kevin Rudd once gave a speech on the topic, and just this week Chris Johnson was talking about Xi’s “dialectical, almost millenarian certainty that the West’s decline is both permanent and accelerating” to newspapers. [2] Less attention has been given to Xi’s millenarian certainty’s and China’s vocal and persistent commitments to peaceful development. I saw its connection as I read, and from this comes the thesis of the piece.

My thesis goes as thus: Xi Jinping believes that the course of history follows “laws.” Forces that operate beyond the grasp of any individual leader’s agency determine the broad contours of the future. The role of the Party and its leader is to discover these forces. They will chart these forces’ future course, and having done so, guide the nation to move with, instead of swim against, the currents of history. Xi has done this. He knows the world hurls towards a new order—an irreversibly globalized, economically interdependent, fundamentally multi-polar world order.

In this international environment, armed intervention frustrates those who resort to it (see: the Iraq War). Peaceful economic integration is the trend of the times, and economic statecraft is statecraft par excellence. “Peaceful development” is the Party term for this sort of statecraft. Peaceful development is more than just a commitment to peace. Peace is not the end goal of peaceful development, though Chinese leaders describe it as a state to be treasured for its own sake. Rather, peaceful development is a strategy (or as the Party documents call it, a “strategic choice” 战略决策) designed to pursue a different end: the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation to their ancestral glory. That has long been the goal of the Communist Party; given their assessment of the times, a strategy of “peaceful development” that uses combination of integrated economic development and targeted economic coercion is the most sensible path to greatness.

In the actual essay I provide a bullet list summary of how the Party has implemented the “peaceful development” strategy, but none of that is done with much depth. This piece does not focus on the what of China’s grand strategy so much as the why. Likewise, I do not really explore the seeming contradiction between China’s military modernization drive and their commitment to peaceful development  (my short answer goes like this: Taiwan). A future piece might be needed that explores the “what” more thoroughly. For now I am satisfied with what I have written. It is important to understand the teleological assumptions that lay behind the Party’s current course. China’s path over the last few decades is not the expression of some peace-loving strand in the DNA of the Chinese race, but a purposefully chosen decision contingent on specific features of the international order. The implications of this are worth pondering over.

If you would like to read my other attempt to peer inside the mind of Xi Jinping, read “A Note on Historical Nihilism,” The World That China Wants,” “Case Studies in Communist Insecurity,” “Review: Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping,”  “Reflections on China’s Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Tanner Greer, “The Theory of History That Guides Xi Jinping,” Palladium (8 July 2020).

[2] From Andrew Batson’s Blog,”Does China Have an Ideological Red Line?” (25 July 2019); “There Are Laws of History, and They Work in China’s Favor” (28 June 2018); “Reading the Communist Manifesto With Xi Jinping” (30 April 2018); For Rudd, see the Asia Society event, “Kevin Rudd on Xi Jinping, China, and Global Order,” held in  Singapore, 26 June 2018;  Johsnon is quoted in Iain Marlowe and Daniel Flatley, “Hong Kong Power Play Puts China at Odds With the West,” Taipei Times (5 July 2020)

Leave a Comment


One implication seems immediately apparent: Should they ascertain that the 'course of history' is not going towards integrated globalism, but instead any form of militarism, they will readily and rapidly abandon any and all pretense of peaceful development in favor of militarism, for it would be, in their eyes, adaptive.

The question now arises: how the hell do we avoid that? Because I sure as heck don't want the world to devolve into militarism.

I'm pretty sure that China's military modernisation is about more than just Taiwan. China has many more territorial claims, but also, the leadership is convinced that military clashes with the United States may well take place some time soon, as China takes its rightful place at the top of the world order.

@J Xiang– It is about more than Taiwan, but 1) it was what they call the "main strategic direction" for which their force structure is built, and 2) that conflict with the USA happens over Taiwan. Been clear since the '50s that the 7th fleet is the only thing that has kept the Chinese Civil War on pause.

@Anon– I think that is probably correct, though it isn't clear to me how easily their judgement will change.

Not really so different from "Progressive" ideology back home; that there is an inevitable trend of history that is "the same but more so" (more openness, more mobility, fewer barriers, more individualism, etc) as has gone before and the job of citizens is not to make moral judgements independently or to work to maintain and preserve institutions, but just to identify and get on the "right side" of the trend. A deeply teleological view of things.

I tend to see this as pretty different from more plausibly scientific attempts to look at trends in human history, like Peter Turchin's, which emphasise more correlation, patterns and relationships between the traits of societies, and which are more agnostic about morality and prediction. "We know that in the past societies have evolved like this", not "This will happen and it is right that this will happen and it is the duty of citizens to push this forward".

(This sort of view was also the common one among Progressive racists like HG Wells back in the day, who saw an inevitable and desirable process of replacement across the world, by Europeans, to be accelerated).